Tarah Wright is an associate professor of Environmental Science at Dalhousie University, Canada, where she played a pivotal role in the creation of the successful Environmental Science Program and the co-creation of the University's innovative new College of Sustainability. Wright's research focuses on the emerging field of education for sustainable development and has published numerous works covering a wide range of issues related to sustainability and higher education. She serves on the editorial boards of the International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education and the Encyclopaedia of Quality of Life Research. She is a member of the Scientific Advisory Board of Environmental Management for Sustainable Universities (EMSU), collaborator for the World Sustainable Development Teach-In Day, and co-creator of the Goggles Project which aims to provoke discussion about higher education and sustainability using street theatre.
Tarah Wright discusses about the relevance of sustainability research, its advantages, limitations as well as the need to go beyond the ivory tower and find innovative and holistic ways to create awareness about sustainability among stakeholders. She is an associate professor of Environmental Science at Dalhousie University, Canada, where she played a pivotal role in the creation of the successful Environmental Science Program and the co-creation of the University's innovative new College of Sustainability.
1. What does it mean to do research for sustainability?
It sounds like a simple question, but it is actually very complicated. Research for sustainability and research about sustainability or about the planet are, I think, two very different things. Maybe we should talk briefly about sustainability first, because I often see Venn diagrams of sustainability with the economy, the environment and society and, in the centre, sustainability, and I actually reject that notion. My understanding of sustainability is that the environment is paramount, that we need to live within the biocapacity of our planet and that society is part of that. When we are looking for sustainability, we are looking to live within the planet’s biocapacity in a way that is equitable to people now and future generations. If economics can play a part in that, then great, but if the current economic system can’t play a part in it, then it needs to change. I just want to establish where I stand before fully answering your question.
I think it is also important to know that sustainability is about a process, not an end state. You don’t just check off boxes and then suddenly become sustainable. Any research for sustainability actually has to be research about process, about working towards an understanding of our world, working through the realisation of a planet where we live within our biocapacity and have intergenerational and intragenerational equity. However, it is not necessarily research towards a specific end; it is more about the process of continuing to develop as a human society on our planet.
2. Can sustainability in research be assessed?
It is very difficult to assess what is and what is not sustainability research. Since all research helps us understand something about the planet or society, you could potentially argue that all research is sustainability research. The key with sustainability research is that it should be contextualised within sustainability, that is, the people doing the research should actually say that the purpose of their research is to work towards a sustainable future. There are some indicators that can tell us whether research is working for sustainability or not.
2.1 What are the main indicators for you?
As I said, the first indicator is actually the contextualisation of the research within sustainability. Thus, while pure or foundational research is all well and good, I would not necessarily call it sustainability research, because there is neither the claim nor the express notion that it is actually working towards a sustainable future. I think just the articulation of that by the researcher is really important. Sustainability research is also problem-oriented, because we know that there are a lot of problems that we need to focus on in order to work towards a sustainable future, so it should actually define a problem and work towards solving it. It should also be participative. We know that sustainability problems are often what people call ‘wicked problems’ and that they cannot be solved through a single discipline. In terms of research, we have often been too reductionist. We do research in biology, in computer science, in English, but we don’t bring it all together. I think it is essential to recognise that sustainability research must be interdisciplinary: we must bring people together to talk about the problems and create solutions together.
It is also important for any sustainability research to be contextualised within a global understanding. Again, sustainability is about intergenerational equity, meaning equity between now and future generations, but also intragenerational equity. While they do not need to be the focus, research for sustainability does have to consider equity issues both now and in future. That requires North-South cooperation. It involves cooperation amongst different sectors. These are all indicators. How you go about evaluating them is a different question.
3. How do you evaluate research for sustainability, then? Assuming you use these indicators, how do you evaluate them?
The traditional notions of validity and reliability have some real strengths, but they are still part of the reductionist approach. We need to talk about a study’s trustworthiness, its catalytic validity. Catalytic validity means: does a study have meaning to the people who are using it or to the people directly involved in the research? Does the research help us work towards a sustainable future? If so, it should be assessed positively. Likewise, the concept of transparency, which derives from validity and reliability, from our traditional science and social science past, is key. We need to see people’s methods; we need to understand what they are doing, and to trust them. Transparency is thus quite important, although we don’t necessarily have to go back to traditional notions of evaluating research.
The other thing about evaluating research is that everyone in academia is under increasing pressure to publish, and we are all supposed to do it in academic journals with high impact factors. I don’t think that should necessarily be the only evaluation criteria for sustainability research. It is important for us to talk to our peers, to gather the information that’s out there, but my colleague David Org once said that we should prevent any academic from publishing until he or she is at least 40. He said that because he thinks that we actually need to take time to think, and when we write and put our work out there, it needs to be meaningful. We are all writing so much that we have no time to read what everybody else is saying, so that is one important aspect: we should perhaps write less, but write more meaningful pieces when we do and disseminate our information to our scholarly peers. However, it is equally important for sustainability research to go beyond the proverbial ivory tower and outside the scholarly realm. It is essential for us to talk about sustainability with communities, with governments, and there are ways to do that. I was recently involved with the Galgos project, and to disseminate our research, instead of writing an article for a journal, we hired four professional actors, who created a street theatre show. They then went out and performed it 34 times, from coast to coast across Canada, and they talked about sustainability with the general public. Obviously, you cannot get into the intricacies of the research, but you can actually start the conversation and maybe continue it in other ways with people. Not everybody needs to hire a theatre troupe to gather and spread information, but it is important for sustainability research to go beyond the traditional academic ways of disseminating. We need to make sure that we take information out to communities and to society at large.